Cultural Differences

Howard Gadlin

Ombudsman, Center for Cooperative Resolution, National Institutes of Health

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

There has been a lot of this sort of All of this cultural differences crap that categorizes people according to culture so Asians will do this. Native American Indians will do this. Blacks will do this. Whites will do this. I am not real sympathetic to that kind of work. I do think that people should be tuned in to differences of that sort but that can quickly fall off into just a sophisticated version of stereotyping. You always have to find out from the particular people that you are working with exactly what is going on with them. If you have someone who doesn't look you in the eye it could mean all sorts of things, you can't just sort of say Native Americans don't do that. So

Q: Right. Maybe though coached in terms of dominant versus minority or something like that, in other words I am thinking of an article that you wrote where you said that in a dispute that you had mediated in Santa Barbara, I believe it was between a Caucasian person and an African American person there. Whereas the Caucasian person saw it as a onetime incident and the African American saw it as completely different.

A: There were definitely those kinds of differences that you notice but again they are tendencies. Because But I think for lots of minorities in the United States there is over time an accumulation of experiences in which they feel they are being treated in certain ways on the basis of their identity. I think that kind of experience for whites is less common, except for in their interactions with minorities. So that in a workplace situation, especially if you have a situation where the white person is in the higher position in the organization and the minority person is in the lower position. If a minority person raises a suggestion that this is perhaps discrimination or discriminatory or just prejudice even if doesn't realize the level of discrimination, it is going to evoke a different kind of response in the person who is accused of discrimination than that does in the person who is feeling discriminated against.

Q: So as a mediator, how do you manage those two different views, or what I expect would be two different views in talking about what the white person's view is going to be in that case, I imagine it is going to be different. They are probably not going to say, "Its true, it was a prejudice move." Really, they are probably going to say, I would imagine, something more along the lines of that it is a merit based thing. It is a skill-based thing. How do you manage those two different views?

A: For one, you have to be alert to mentions of defensiveness that a particular conflict is going to evoke in someone. It is not easy to be accused of discrimination and it is not easy to feel that one is being discriminated against. You have to be sensitive to what that evokes in both of the parties and find a way of acknowledging that. You are not there to contradict their experience but to ask them to reflect on it in a different way.

A lot of it is what is sort of what the intervener has to be sensitive to, and there to having some experience with some of the regularities in this kind of situation are really important. Sexual harassment cases, almost always the first reaction one the part of the person who is being accused of sexual harassment is to deny it, to be angry, and to respond in some kind of threatening manner. You know, like they talk about the stages of grief and they start with denial, maybe you would have to expect that there is a kind of natural history of response to these things. You have to be prepared to work through these different stages before you can get to do the actual grief work. It is the same thing with the intervention and disputes of that sort.